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The Catacombs of Paris 💀: Descend into the depths of the French capital

When we think of Paris, we imagine the glamour, the good cuisine, the fashion, the famous museums... But not necessarily what happens underground! As Halloween approaches, I'm taking you to one of the creepiest places in France: the Paris catacombs. 😱 It is in fact an old ossuary, bringing together millions of bones from different Parisian cemeteries... Open to the public since 1809, it is the largest ossuary in the world!

catacombs of Paris, Parisian ossuary

Origin of the catacombs

The word "catacomb" is a word derived from the Latin "catacumbae", which means "underground cemetery". As their name suggests, catacombs initially served as burial sites. The oldest date back to the 1st century and were built in Rome.

The Catacombs of Paris only saw the light of day in the 18th century: for health reasons, it was necessary to move the contents of several underground cemeteries. The cemeteries are full, the smell is terrible, bacteria are spreading and causing infections in the soil, even in the wells. We must intervene.

The authorities then chose to transfer the bones to an abandoned quarry. At the time, the place was located outside of Paris, today it is in the 14th arrondissement. The goal was to empty the full cemeteries and improve the sanitary conditions of the city, but also to consolidate the quarry which was causing collapses in the city center of Paris.

Charles-Axel Guillaumot is then named responsible for this mission. From 1785 to 1860, he ordered the transfer of the bones of 6 million Parisians buried in different cemeteries in the capital and thus filled the quarry. The site is officially called "Municipal Ossuary of Paris" on April 7, 1786 and immediately took the mythical nickname "Catacombs", in reference to the catacombs of Rome, a place of public fascination since its discovery.

Open to the public

From 1809, the Catacombs of Paris were open to the public by appointment. The place is very successful and attracts French but also foreign visitors in search of thrills. Today, the catacombs welcome 500,000 visitors each year.

Before their opening, they were the subject of a "decorative" redevelopment ordered by Héricart de Thury. From now on, the bones are no longer arranged in bulk but organized into walls and corridors, in a more "aesthetic" way. and visual.

catacombs of paris bones

The part accessible to the public represents a tiny part of this labyrinth since you can only visit a 1.5 kilometer gallery out of a total of 300 km. Oui oui ! 300 KILOMETERS 😯 where it is forbidden to descend for safety reasons.

A parallel life, however, developed there -- illegally -- in the 1970s. Parties, dinners, graffiti... Many rebels still decide today to enter despite the frequent police checks, accidents and bad encounters that can be had there...

The Catacombs of Paris in a few figures

- 20 meters deep (under the metro and sewers)

- 1500 meters in length for the part accessible to the public

- 300 km in total for an area of 11 km2!

- 14ºC: this is the average temperature in the catacombs (cover well!)

- 243 steps: 131 to enter and 112 to exit

- 200 people maximum can visit the ossuary at the same time

- 1 hour visit

Is it worth visiting the catacombs?

To be honest, I'm too claustrophobic to go into that kind of place and I've never visited the Paris Catacombs. But I know a few people who went there and they told me it was a unique visit! I'll explain why.

The first impression is strange: we go down an endless staircase of more than 130 steps, it is dark, the air humid, breathing becomes more difficult difficult. Once at the bottom, we discover millions of bones of all kinds and we wonder what we are doing there. The ground is slippery and uneven; a fall among all these skeletons would be embarrassing! Even gloomy...

We move through the tunnels at our own pace with an audio guide which gives us precise information about the place. It's interesting but what stands out the most is the mystical side of the visit. The bones are perfectly stacked on top of each other and form "decors", patterns.

I once visited a chapel full of skulls and bones in Portugal. It was the first time in my life that I saw bones and I couldn't help but think that they had belonged to people, that these people had had a life, and we wanted to know who they were , at what time they lived... We want to know their history. Because visiting the catacombs is also a human experience, not just historical.

Another thing I thought about when I saw these bones: who worked here? Who were the people who transported all these bones and had to spend months, even years here? Stack them, arrange them in such a way as to form a harmonious decor... At the end of your visit, you leave with more questions than when you arrived but you have seen a unique, exclusive place in the world, and you have participated a little in the history of today's Paris !

If you want to see something different in the French capital, get away from traditional visits and places known by tourists from all over the world, I'll tell you therefore recommends booking a ticket for the Catacombs... Sensitive souls refrain!

visit the Paris catacombs underground galleries

Prepare for your visit

Note that the catacombs are not accessible to people with reduced mobility because of their configuration (steps, little space to move around... ).

The tour is also not recommended for claustrophobic people and people with breathing difficulties.

You can reserve your ticket 7 days in advance at the official website of the Catacombs of Paris (adult price: €29). The entrance is located in the 14th arrondissement: 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau).

On site, you will be asked to respect the premises. You have the right to take photos but without flash. And don't forget that these bones once belonged to human beings who still deserve respect! Selfies next to a skull are therefore not in very good taste...

Finally, as mentioned a little above, it is on average 14ºC (57ºF) in the catacombs in summer and winter. Remember to dress warmly!

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